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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Game plan: How the Vikings can slow down the Lions and Matt Stafford

By Arif Hasan


The focus for the Detroit Lions this week against the Minnesota Vikings will be their explosive offense, and in particular their passing game. Matt Stafford ranks fourth in the NFL in passer rating and sixth in touchdown rate.

As Matthew Coller pointed out, this change has been evident since the promotion of their new offensive coordinator, Jim Bob Cooter. Alongside the schematic changes that reduced Stafford’s gunslinging and replaced them with high-percentage passes, the Lions also made moves to grab playmakers across their skill positions.

A look at the weapons that have made Matt Stafford great again

The Lions run an extremely distinctive offense. In some ways, it resembles the Vikings offense under Bill Musgrave in 2012, but without the running threat Adrian Peterson provided. That may not sound threatening, but they have better secondary and tertiary playmakers in the passing game than those Vikings did and a much better quarterback.

With that in mind, Golden Tate plays the Percy Harvin role—a comparison he’s received often—and like Harvin will lead the team in targets. But beyond that, the Lions also employ contested catch winners in Anquan Boldin and Marvin Jones, with Jones also experimenting with downfield catches, too.

Like Ponder in 2012, Matthew Stafford has the lowest depth of target in the NFL, and by a large margin. Golden Tate has one of the lowest averaged depths of target as an individual receiver, too, but still manages an acceptable 11.4 yards per reception—the same as Allen Robinson and Vincent Jackson. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he leads receivers in yards after catch.

It follows, therefore, that the Detroit Lions lead the league in plays with broken tackles—13.5 percent of their offensive plays include a missed tackle from the opposing defense of some sort, per Football Outsiders. Tate himself generates a broken tackle on 22 percent of his touches, while Theo Riddick does on 25 percent of his touches.

In fact, Boldin, Jones, Tate and Riddick (as well as the injured Ameer Abdullah) all generate more per touch than the NFL average for individual skill players—17 percent.

Suffice to say, it’s a big part of the offense.

Stafford is third in the NFL in passer rating, but 9th when screens taken out

— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) October 29, 2016

Traditionally, the response to such a YAC-heavy offense has been a Cover 2 defense, something in every team’s repertoire. With the limited rushing ability of the Lions, they can take a safety out of the box, especially with all the nickel looks Detroit likes to show, and zone coverage allows them to keep their eyes on the quarterback and begin to close on the ball underneath before it even leaves the quarterback’s hands.

Of course, if it were that easy, the solution to Stafford’s offense would have presented itself much sooner and we would have seen his numbers dip by now.

The Green Bay Packers responded with a Cover 2 defense in Week 3 and while those plays did do an excellent job of limiting yards after the catch—3.4 yards per catch outside of a fluke Marvin Jones run (a 73 yard touchdown, largely untouched). The rest of the year, Lions wide receivers averaged 6.0 yards after the catch.

But the problem was that it opened up the seam between the two safeties to be attacked by Eric Ebron, who forced the Packers safeties to close inside after three passes up the seam for 35 yards. In his 22 other receptions this year, he didn’t attack upfield up the middle once, with post routes or anything else.

Against Cover 1 looks, Ebron typically takes advantage of man coverage with shorter passes to the flats and outside zones 7-11 yards down field. While that limits his upside, it unlocks the key for the rest of the receivers, who exploit man coverage for its after-catch opportunities.

This, of course, is why the Tampa-2 defense was invented. Despite the massive reservations Vikings fans and the rest of the NFL have against that defense, every NFL defensive coach uses variations on this theme as well, including Mike Zimmer himself. It’s not an outdated defensive coverage, though there is a good argument that it is no longer a viable base coverage.

In the GIF above, you can see an instance of a matchup zone “cover 7” leading to an interception by Josh Robinson of Cam Newton

The Vikings should implement a heavily zone-centric scheme in order to deal with those YAC threats the Lions have across their entire receiving corps. Their unique talents and Zimmer’s favored defensive complexity will mean that their zones won’t be predictable and should still preserve the playmaking talent that Xavier Rhodes seems to be developing.

An added benefit to this approach is that it avoids the inevitable mismatch between Theo Riddick and Chad Greenway in nickel packages, a certain threat now that the Vikings’ top cover linebacker, Eric Kendricks, has been ruled out.

Those zone packages will still cause problems if the Lions go over the middle more often than they traditionally have because Golden Tate over the middle against the linebacker has a lot of potential to go wrong; it’s one reason why the Dolphins were able to put up 37 points (along with a blocked punt) against the Vikings back in 2014.

But for the most part this should keep some shackles on a Lions offense that otherwise might be able to avoid the typical Vikings defensive trump card (pressure from the defensive line) with quick passes.

Minnesota, despite some struggles from Jayron Kearse (who may not start now that Sendejo is listed as questionable, which may mean “probable” with this year’s rules), is a good tackling team. In several games, they’ve given up a big play with one or two key missed tackles, but for the most part they’ve done a good job taking down ballcarriers, even the most elusive ones.

The Vikings will want to implement a variety of looks, but in this game will want a clear look on where the ball will be and give themselves the opportunity to swarm tackle. Take away the short passing game, and they take away most of what the Lions can do.

The post Game plan: How the Vikings can slow down the Lions and Matt Stafford appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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